Muddy waters: Making sense of the Smith River shenanigans

The Smith River winds from its headwaters near White Sulphur Springs to join the Missouri River near Ulm. For 60 miles it twists and turns through a panorama of spectacular cliffs and open and undeveloped forests and meadows. The scenery, near-wilderness surroundings and outstanding fishing make the Smith so popular that it’s Montana’s only river that requires a permit and a fee to float. But now, some significant changes are being proposed for the management of the Smith and drawing some serious questions.

About a month ago the Lee papers ran a story describing the activities of the Smith River Citizens Advisory Council, a group appointed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and tasked with “developing recommendations for managing recreation on the Smith River.”  The 12-member council includes eight citizens representing outfitters, river users and local elected officials as well as four agency representatives—two from FWP and two from the Lewis & Clark National Forest.

The timeline for the development of the recommendations says they will “be available for public review and comment” in spring 2008, which would be now. But so far, the only inkling of what the public may have in store came from the news story.

Among the many suggestions, some make sense. For instance, only allowing those over the age of 12 to apply for a permit. Others, however, seemed based on little or no substantial evidence.  

Those who have floated the river know that its primitive boat camps provide wonderful camping experiences in a totally natural environment.   Human waste, always a concern near waterways, has been handled for years through the use of latrines where one can sit surrounded by nothing but sky and clear air when nature calls. These simple devices consist of a plywood box with a toilet seat and cover located over a pit, and are available at each of the river’s boat camps—some surrounded by wild roses, some up on high plateaus, but all situated far from the river.

One of the suggestions considered by the committee is making it a requirement that all parties floating the river carry out their human waste. Those who have ever floated rivers where such rules apply can attest to a couple of things: It isn’t pleasant to carry an ammo box full of human waste downstream for many days in the heat of summer, nor is it particularly pleasant to use one, which may be the reason you so often find the riverside bushes filled with toilet paper and worse on such rivers.

Granted, some rivers such as the Green River in Utah have so little organic activity in their dry, sandy soils that waste simply won’t decompose. In fact, and this will come as a shock to most Montanans, river rules for floating the Green require that you pee in the river—the same river from which you then filter your drinking water! 

But that is not the case on the Smith, which is characterized by forest and river bottom soils that quickly break down organic matter. The suggestion that everyone carry out their human waste sent shockwaves through those who use the river, including representatives of the land trusts that hold the conservation easements on which many of the boat camps are situated. Outfitters even volunteered to dig new latrines each season for free if the agency couldn’t afford to perform these routine maintenance tasks—and that’s where the real shenanigans on the Smith arise.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Ed Tinsley, a member of the advisory council, apparently believes the agency needs more money.  One of his proposals is that application fees, which are $25 for Montana residents and $50 for out-of-staters, not be returned to unsuccessful applicants.

“Every other Western river I’ve floated, once you put in an application, whether you draw a permit or not, you give that money to that forest or agency administering it, and it goes to that river,” Tinsley said in the article. “I think a lot of people who float and like the Smith wouldn’t have a problem with that.” The story went on to say that “the money would be used for Smith River corridor enhancements, including fishery, campsite and possibly water quality improvements.”

But here’s the problem. Although Tinsley characterized the committee as “information gatherers,” they apparently didn’t gather much information on the fiscal status of the Smith River accounts prior to suggesting that Montanans give their hard-earned dollars to a state agency just for the chance to float a river they already own. That piece of information came to light just this week after state Senator and former budget director Dave Lewis requested the Legislative Audit Division take a preliminary look into how much money is generated by the floating fees and how it’s spent.

What the quick investigation found is that actual river maintenance expenditures for the last decade have vacillated between a low of $58,522 in ’98 to a high of $295,998 in ’03, with $279,990 spent last year. No explanation of the huge differences was provided by FWP. The auditors also found the Smith River Corridor Enhancement Account, which is statutorily dedicated to taking care of the river, has a standing balance of $346,490.  Even more shocking was this revelation: “The Corridor Enhancement Account has never been spent.” That’s right, a state agency sitting on hundreds of thousands of public dollars wants to squeeze Montanans for even more—and make them carry out their own waste to boot.

Those who care about the Smith River and its future management will want to keep a close eye on FWP, its advisory committee and whatever recommendations they produce. The info is available online at http://fwp.mt.gov/parks/smithriver/default.html. From the looks of things, a lot more “information gathering”—especially from the public who actually own this incredible river—would be a very good thing.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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